Friday, April 24, 2009

Spring renaissance

As well as designating an amazing era of Italian achievements in art and architecture, the term renaissance is everyday French for rebirth or revival. My title is somewhat pleonastic, since everything is reborn in spring, even old ideas, old loves and old illusions. I've often said that, as a native Australian youth living on the tropical eastern coast of the continent, I was simply unaware of the profound sense of the four seasons. I knew, of course, that we sweltered in summer, and that we no longer went swimming in winter, but that was about all. I didn't fully realize that Nature was a giant machine that operated cyclically in four seasonal phases. In fact, grasping the sense of the seasons was yet another of the myriad common lessons taught to me, generally in subtle ways, by my Breton wife.

A week ago, my neighbor Pierre Faure (the municipal employee) came along to Gamone with his huge tractor, at my request, and plowed rapidly the rectangle in front of the house. Since then, I've divided the area of 12 m x 6 m into four rectangles, with room in the middle for a future pergola covered in roses. The earth in each of the four beds, 2.5 m x 1.5 m, will be raised to a height of about 25 cm, and surrounded by wooden beams. Later on, I'll cover the alleys between the beds, and the interior of the pergola, 4 m x 2 m, with white limestone gravel. Before then, there's a lot of work to be done in preparing the soil, heaping up the earth for the four beds, and building the pergola. My first major task, next Monday, will consist of renting a rear tine tiller (in French, motoculteur) and going over the entire rectangle. So, I hope there's no rain before then...

Meanwhile, in the small plot on the edge of the lawn where I grow herbs, tomatoes and strawberries, the young fig tree that was given to me by Natacha and Alain has just sprouted, not only leaves, but a couple of dozen baby figs.

A few days ago, I drove to the nearby village of Beauvoir-en-Royans, not far away from Saint-Marcellin, on the banks of the Isère River. Little remains today of the elegant medieval castle that was the home of the last Dauphin, Humbert II, when he donated his vast Dauphiné province to the king of France, in 1349. A few years earlier on, he had set up a convent in the grounds of his castle for sixty monks belonging to the order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

Recently, the ancient convent buildings were purchased and restored by an administrative consortium comprising the municipalities of Pont-en-Royans, Choranche and other communes along the Bourne River. At the end of May, the splendid buildings, referred to as the Carmes, will be opened as a museum dedicated to the dynasty of ancient Dauphins, and they will be surrounded by horticultural displays of native flowers and plants of the Vercors.

Just behind the Carmes and the ruins of Humbert's castle, a prairie of wildflowers extends to the gentle slopes of the Vercors. You might say that Choranche is located on the other side of that bank of mountains: not so far away, as the crow flies, from Beauvoir-en-Royans. But, at that place, there's no direct up-and-over route. To get home, I usually drive around the southern extremity of that line of mountains, through the villages of Saint-André-en-Royans and Pont-en-Royans.

That fragment of a map (in fact, a three-dimensional plastic wall map of the Vercors created by the French National Institute of Geography) has always amused me, because it shows Gamone in relatively big letters (I've inserted a red dot there) as if it were a significant spot on the globe... which it is, of course! The Bourne River crosses the map from east to west, passing alongside the Chartreux domain where the monks made wine (not to be confused with the above-mentioned monks of the Carmes, whose convent at Beauvoir-en-Royans lies just beyond the left-hand border of my map). Imagine a rectangle formed by Saint-André-en-Royans (upper left), Presles (upper right), the village of Choranche (lower right) and Pont-en-Royans (lower left). That is truly what you might call my home territory. The map also indicates my two mountains: the Bec de Châtelus (the pointed extremity of the Cournouze) and Mount Baret (which I admire every morning, to the south, through my bedroom window).

On the way home, at the place where the commune of Saint-André runs into Pont-en-Royans, I stopped for a moment alongside the charming manor-house that belongs to the family of my doctor, Xavier Limouzin. I've always considered the familiar silhouette of the pair of lovely circular towers, seen from a distance, as the first visual symbol of our territory called the Royans... which was once a modest principality, with a prince named Ismidon.

Turning my back on these humble "twin towers" of the Royans, I looked across the fields and slopes in the direction of Choranche... which lies in a hollow circus (geological term, indicating a circular valley surrounded by vertical cliffs) just beyond the central ridge in the photo, below the white walls of Presles, visible in the background.

As I soaked in this glorious spring scene, a flood of interesting thoughts entered my mind, unexpectedly. I realized that I have the privilege of living in a beautiful corner of France that was once inhabited, back in the Middle Ages, by fascinating historical individuals such as Prince Ismidon and the dauphin Humbert II. It was a territory that attracted monks, seeking peace and God. But it was also a land devastated by the Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants, during the second half of the 16th century.

Thinking of the cliffs and mountains, I said to myself that this land is not an easy place in which to get around. You can glimpse various localities, often just short of the visible horizon, that give the impression of being not too far away. And it's true, as I said, that a crow flying in a straight line would reach these places rapidly... just as jet fighters, in training flights, sweep over the entire Vercors so quickly that I often wonder whether the pilots have time to realize that they're flying over a fabulous landscape of snow-capped mountains and rocky abysses. Even though you can easily imagine a virtual itinerary from one spot in the Royans to another, it often happens that there are simply no routes in the areas that interest you. So, you have to discover indirect ways of reaching your goal. And, as you move, your instantaneous vision of the mountainous landscape evolves constantly, to an extent that often baffles me completely. Certain summits seem to rise, while other peaks descend out of sight. In a word, the mountains seem to move, magically. In this context, to succeed in going from A to B, you have to merit your journey, as it were. Living here can be a pleasant metaphor of the challenges of existence.

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